Learning the basics of best care practices for rabbits can be a daunting task. Like anything today, rabbit-related information is sometimes met with conflicting opinions, confusion and outright misinformation. With so much tangled information, how do we know what is credible? Below are a few frequently-discussed topics that might help shed some light.
Rabbit-Savvy Versus Exotic Pet Specialty
The first thing pet rabbit owners must know is that there is a lot involved with finding qualified veterinary care. It stands to reason that if you take your animal to a veterinarian who does not fully understand rabbits, your chances of getting incorrect information increases.
Without a good referral in your area, locating a rabbit-savvy veterinarians can be difficult. Even though rabbit-savvy veterinarians are often found in exotic pet clinics, finding an exotic pet clinic does not mean anyone there has rabbit-specific expertise. When it comes to rabbits, specific expertise could mean the difference between life and death of your pet. “Exotic” does not automatically mean “rabbit expert”.
Agriculture Rabbits Versus Pet Rabbits
Even though rabbits are still understudied, there is a great deal of information about them. For this reason, rabbit expertise does not always originate from scientists or veterinarians, but rather people who have day-to-day hands-on experience raising rabbits.
To be clear, we believe there is no difference between rabbits used for agriculture purposes and those we keep as pets. Sadly, not everyone sees it that way. Many pet rabbit owners would like to live in a world where no rabbits are used for sports (human entertainment), agriculture (meat) or otherwise. Reality being what it is, pet rabbit owners must be aware that rabbits are still used for a variety of purposes. That means that we must pay close attention to where rabbit care information originates. Why would you want advice about your pet rabbit from someone who views the species as a food source? Your purpose for owning a rabbit is entirely different.
That is not to say that those raising rabbits for purposes other than pet ownership do not provide some helpful information. They do. However, use discernment. Most rabbits caged outside which are not considered pets are treated and cared for much differently than your pet rabbit. Be aware of the source of information and their purpose for sharing it.
The lack of comprehensive studies on domesticated (pet) rabbits can also cause confusion. This is partly due to rabbits being lumped into the very broad category of either agricultural animals or exotic pets. Agricultural animal studies are helpful to an extent. However, rabbits should be studied independent of the exotic animals category because their needs and fragility are somewhat unique. Historic categorizations of rabbits means that information can be distributed about rabbits when in reality, it does not even pertain to them.
One of the most important topics when researching best care practices is rabbit-safe food. It is also one of the most confusing and conflicting topics. Because a rabbit’s digestive system is so incredibly fragile, proper food information is critical. Learning to feed your pet rabbit properly requires more than just glancing at a rabbit-safe food list. One might not know that by simply doing topical, quick research.
Let’s use rabbit-safe vegetables as an example. As a pet rabbit owner, you visit a website that is known to publish reliable rabbit-related information. On that site is a rabbit-safe food list. Kale, cabbage, broccoli and mustard greens are on the “approved” list for rabbit consumption. Great! Now you know that these common vegetables are safe, so you start feeding them to your rabbit and think nothing more of it.
To make a strong point about information and the dangers of distributing it without thoroughly understanding where it originates, let’s take a look at kale. Kale is a very common food when it comes to pet rabbits, but there is important information that may not be so readily available.
Vegetables such as kale are on the “approved for consumption” list for your pet rabbit. Some tolerate kale just fine, at least in the short term. Other rabbits do not tolerate it at all, and for good reason. Having several rabbits that immediately developed diarrhea after eating a small amount of kale led me to to some intensive research on this rabbit-safe food and related vegetables.
Brassicas is a genus of plants belonging to the mustard family (better known as cruciferous vegetables). Kale, broccoli, brussel sprouts, mustard greens, cabbages and cauliflower are a few cruciferous vegetables. They can all be found on rabbit-safe food lists. Many experienced rabbit owners warn not to use these particular vegetables as rabbit food. Others might say that they are fine in very small quantities and infrequently. The information concerning “small amounts” and “infrequently” is what many rabbit owners miss because they are just quickly glancing down a list of safe-for-rabbit foods.
According to a study done by Professor Irwin Goldman at the UW Department of Horticulture, brassicas should be fed to rabbits sparingly. A compound called glucosinolate is produced by brassicas. In the wild, this glucosinolate compound discourages mammals and insects from eating it. If your pet rabbit eats it on a regular basis, microbes in the rabbit’s gut are disrupted, which then leads to an imbalance in the rabbit’s gut flora which is caused by too few beneficial bacteria. The bad bacteria then overgrows, as does yeast and/or parasites. This condition is called dysbiosis. As any experienced rabbit owner knows, one problem with rabbits quickly leads to another. Soon, the animal’s health is in a downward spiral which can be difficult to correct.
Frequent consumption of cruciferous vegetables (such as kale) can also reduce the ability of your rabbit’s thyroid gland to take in the iodine they need to stay healthy. It can lead to toxicity which leads to the gastrointestinal tract issues mentioned above. While the same can be said of other rabbit-safe vegetables, cruciferous vegetables (brassicas) are more risky. They should not be fed to rabbits in a regular-vegetable quantity or on any consistent basis.
This does not mean you should not give your rabbit kale or other such vegetables. Vegetables should make up a small percentage of your pet rabbit’s daily diet. This information is provided only to show how information can easily be misunderstood. Without proper investigation, pet rabbit owners might assume that “safe to feed” automatically means that the food can be provided more frequently than intended.
When In Doubt – Look To Nature
It is not realistic for every pet rabbit owners to dig deeper and do comprehensive research into the information presently available. It is also not helpful to be leery of each piece of widely-distributed information. That being the case, how can we cut through the confusion of so much conflicting rabbit-related information?
Of course, situations arise where human processes must take precedence, such as alteration surgeries or occasional medications. That said, much of the conflicting information can easily be clarified by using nature as a guide. Regardless the breed, rabbits are creatures of nature at their base. That will never change. Err on the side of caution and use nature’s discernment, even though your rabbit lives in captivity.
When in doubt, ask yourself one common-sense question. If my rabbit lived in nature, what would be in his environment? When it comes to foods, how often would your pet rabbit come across it in the wild? Example: Rabbits do not generally climb a tree, pick bananas, peel and eat them. Even if they did, fruits are seasonal so your rabbit would have very limited access.
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